A woman with unwashed hair and a makeup-free face smiles awkwardly, iced coffee in hand, for a living room selfie. She has 142,000 followers. Another woman poses in a bikini, eating pizza, a house plant standing in for a palm tree. She has 232,000 followers. Both women are slightly better looking, slightly more stylish, with slightly nicer things than the rest of us, but otherwise, they aren't that different. This is what influencing looks like in a pandemic.
It was already kind of going this way. Starting around two years ago, the billion-dollar industry that had spent a decade turning approachable nobodies into superstars had begun slipping back into the realm of relatability. In April 2019, former Atlantic social media sage Taylor Lorenz observed that influencers were trashing the flawless, cream-filled aesthetic of their predecessors, which had gone from rarefied to banal. Minimalist pseudo-austerity was being swapped out for a slap-dash, naturally lit mess of acne-ridden candids by the likes of YouTuber Emma Chamberlain.
Instead of unboxing products, these kids showed their empties, and instead of looking on the bright side, they opened up about the dark. The younger, more earnest incomers appealed to an audience suffering from fake news fatigue, one craving some semblance of authenticity underneath all the gloss. "We are trying to show a real person doing cool things as a real person," fashion influencer Reese Blutstein told Lorenz, "not trying to create a persona that isn't actually you."
As everyone cloisters in their homes, even the biggest names in the world are getting real. On March 28, all made up and nowhere to go, Kylie Jenner posted a selfie—"bored in the house and i'm in the house bored"— looking appropriately bored, but isolating nonetheless. Industry expert Brittany Hennessy, author of INFLUENCER: Building Your Personal Brand in the Age of Social Media, sees this as a step forward by stepping back: "I think the market has kind of had like a return to basics."
As brands drop sponsored content, shed payment for links, and suspend product delivery, it is virtually impossible to predict what will become of influencers, just as it is impossible to predict what will become of any of us. In the meantime, with so much wealth sucked out of the market, so much luxury sucked out of their lives, even the most privileged influencers in the world have slipped closer, if only slightly, to what they once were: people, just like the rest of us.
Small solace for travel influencers, who make their money off the one thing they can no longer do. Amy Seder and her fiancé, Brandon Burkley, initially watched from a distance, like the rest of America, as the novel coronavirus swept through Asia at the beginning of the year. They are co-founders of Away Lands, a company that creates lifestyle and travel films and photography, "showcasing a heightened and curated reality" which often stars themselves. But in late February and early March, the duo noticed postponements and cancellations coming in one after the other. "I think that's when we started realizing how serious this was getting," Seder told me. Very suddenly, panic took off: "We weren't prepared for all of travel and media to shut down."
Apparently, no one else was either. Travel influencer and marketing consultant Scott Eddy told The New York Times in an article published on March 13 that five of his campaigns had disappeared in 48 hours. The next week, Digiday reported that Follow Me Away co-founder Victoria Yore, who creates travel content with her partner, had lost 90% of her income after her cruise and airline campaigns got pulled. 2 Travel Dads' Rob Taylor, an LGBT family travel blogger, told the same site that his ad revenue had been cut by 80%. He estimated that 80% of his peers have found themselves unemployed.
As far as influencing is concerned, the virus couldn't have chosen a worse time—spreading across America at the start of spring, with festival season on the horizon. Everyone knows that influencers clean up at places like Coachella and SxSW——influencer houses are a thing, a sponsored backdrop upon which to do influencing things—shilling for every other brand that happens to be using the event as a showcase. While some festivals are moving online, it's the offline connections and experiences that translate on social media, not the other way around. Influencers are supposed to be aspirational; they are supposed to be in places we want to be, in clothes we want to wear, doing things we want to do. Without that so-called "FOMO," it's hard to see what need they really serve.
But it wasn't just the physical festivals and holiday destinations and hotels and airlines that were pulling their campaigns; fashion and beauty companies were also getting cold feet. Brands have been hurriedly slashing their ad spending and affiliate marketing budgets, Hennessy says, while also grappling with supply chain interruptions. "Nobody's buying a strappy sandal right now, you know?" says Grace Atwood, founder of the lifestyle blog The Stripe. Though Atwood has squirreled away savings over the years, she says it's her year-long contract with Sephora that is currently keeping her from eating into it. "I'm not like rolling in the dollars right now," she tells me. "I'm earning enough from the existing sponsored content that I have."
In other words, even if you are a micro-influencer—Atwood has more than the 100,000-follower cut off, but she's in the vicinity—you may still be able to survive the recession on the strength of your brand alone. "The stronger your relationships," Hennessy explains, "the more likely it is you're still doing ok."
Absent reliable brand budgets, though, it can be hard to get by without a "diverse revenue stream," which in common parlance means you don't just rely on Glossier to send you stuff to slather on your face. So some influencers are pivoting to virtual consulting; Seder, for her part, is using her degree in photography to launch online classes in commercial photography and film."The people who are really feeling it right now," Hennessy says, "are the people who are putting all their eggs into the branded content basket."
Other influencers, leaning on the intimacy they have built with their audience over the years, are being honest about their economic stress. Beneath the vague references to "lost revenue" and "bottom lines" and the prospect of being left with "no industry," the message is explicit enough: We are all sinking with the global economy together.
But the industry is also experiencing a paradox particular to a 21st century pandemic: While the general populace may not have any cash to spare, it also has nowhere to go. We are a literal captive audience, the perfect scenario for a market that banks on our engagement, and an ideal situation for brands that rely on it. According to influencer agency Obviously, on Instagram likes are up 76% and impressions 22%. Traffic on sponsored posts are also up, reports Business Insider, and even if brands are turning away from influencers, direct-to-consumer products are selling big in the meantime. Hennessy says paid ads on YouTube and blog posts, now more watched and read than ever before, can also leave some influencers even better off than they were before—even with branded content dwindling on the whole.
"In a way," she explains, "This is the best time to be a content creator."
In a post from March 27, a peach loungewear-clad Atwood grins cutely as she leans towards the camera and shills for Amazon Prime. It looks like an off-the-cuff photo, the sort of timer selfie I take for my friends as a joke, except mine never look this well-lit. With more of an affinity for writing and beauty advice, Atwood has always "outsourced" her photography. Without that option anymore, she bought a tripod and lighting equipment and has been teaching herself how to shoot inside her apartment. The question, now, is what to shoot when the economy is in free fall, when promoting anything during a pandemic screams bad taste. Atwood let her audience answer. "It feels insensitive to be like, ‘Buy this mirror,' when we're about to enter a huge recession, but people still want to know," she says. She had initially decided not to use tags during the crisis, but then people started asking where the items in her home were from.
A recent post on Atwood's Instagram is sponsored by Olay, one of her few campaigns to survive the pandemic:. "People still care about skin care." She also continues to work with a CBD brand, but has tabled certain other fashion partnerships for now (podcasts are off too, because no one is commuting). "I think that we need to use our power for good right now," she says. "Encourage people to stay home."
Atwood is not the only influencer who's found her morality knocking against the capitalist machine. According to Dr. Crystal Abidin, an academic expert on influencer cultures and the author of Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online, the industry seems to be caught between two opposing forces: the impulse to make money out of tragedy, and the impulse not to make money at all, subverting influencing's very existence.
While Atwood is busy telling people to spend time in their homes, brands are ensuring they keep spending while they do. Seder says she has noticed more and more campaigns are focusing on domesticity. "Everyone wants to push this same stay-at-home message," she says. And according to Atwood, people are buying it: Affiliate advertising may not be at its peak, but loungewear items like slippers and sweatpants and sweatshirts are all selling well.
You would think people would be less likely to consume considering the sputtering economy, but we're still members of a capitalist society, taught to heal ourselves through consumption. So why should our coping mechanism for coronavirus be any different? Quarantined in their homes, influencers help us invest in proxy hygge, reinforcing a neoliberal mindset that demands that our health be expressed through every domestic comfort we can afford.
Then there are the influencers who have rebranded as crisis guides. While Abidin has been researching East Asian influencers integrating COVID-19 PSAs into their work, the Internet has also been home to an emerging subset of American "coronavirus influencers" who are positioning themselves as scientific authorities. Tomas Pueyo, who works in marketing, went viral over his direct call for public mobilization in the Medium piece Coronavirus: Why We Must Act Now, and now appears to tweet exclusively about the pandemic. Eric Feigl-Ding, who is actually in the epidemiology field, faced criticism from the media after he posted a stat from a paper that had not yet been vetted, which estimated that coronavirus' contagiousness was 3.8 (that is, one person infects 3.8 others—it has since been estimated at 2.5). "HOLY MOTHER OF GOD," he freaked in a since-deleted tweet, exclaiming that this was "thermonuclear pandemic level bad."
Others have been more carelessly destructive, like Ava Louise, who launched a "coronavirus challenge"—it's literally just licking a public toilet seat—on TikTok last month, only to be eviscerated online after another participating influencer ("Larz") tested positive for the virus. Hennessy believes there's a difference between slight irresponsibility (see Germany's Fitness Oskar kissing his girlfriend with a mask on: "We are not afraid of the virus") and literally endangering people (see Arielle Charnas fleeing for the Hamptons mid-quarantine). Of course, she thinks influencers should be aware of setting a good example for their audience—"But you can't really expect them to, 'cause they didn't ask to be a role model."
Perhaps not, but an influencer ignoring their influence? Why Trust Science? author Naomi Oreskes recently told The New Yorker that it's the people we pay attention to—from celebrities, to politicians, to religious figures—who force us to understand the urgency of crises like this. "People have died in a nursing home in Washington State," she said, "but, when Tom Hanks says he's got it, suddenly everybody's paying attention."
And that means everybody's paying attention when they fuck up. We all watched as fitness influencer Ingrid De La Mare Kenny went skiing in the alps, then pursed her lips and argued that a strong immunity could keep coronavirus at bay—with the supplement Simply Inulin (only €26.99!). While that's a lot more affordable than fellow fitness guru Ben Greenfield's $6000 ozone therapy generator (don't ask), the widespread promotion of remedies like these has led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to release a list of bogus products warning Americans that they "might be dangerous to you and your family."
Finally, there are the celebrities on social media who claim to have everyone's best interests in mind. This is the irony of Gal Gadot's tone-deaf (in every sense) video compilation of stars singing "Imagine." "I hope someday you'll join us / And the world will be as one," sing the members of an elite that appears to have unlimited access to coronavirus tests while even front-line medical workers scramble to obtain them. The same stars who get to retreat to their Hamptons beach houses, their sprawling acreages, where most of us would be happy to isolate even outside a pandemic. As Madonna incantated from a milky bath filled with flower petals, coronavirus is "the great equalizer."
Hollywood's stars will be fine, as ever. The question is whether influencers will join them. Socially distanced from the steady filter of luxury it has become so accustomed to, the influencing industry has been left as exposed as the rest of the world. The difference is that it continues to command our attention—it's what it does with that conundrum that determines its destiny.
For Atwood that means continuing to influence, just a little more responsibly. She recently had a conference call with an alcohol brand in which they shifted a planned Mother's Day gathering to a virtual happy hour. "As influencers our role is kind of like to be like this virtual friend," Atwood says.
And friends don't expose friends to COVID-19. The best influencers are laying low, keeping us company, and providing comfort at a time when that's hard to come by—no matter who you are. And as bad as the situation is right now, there's ultimately something halcyon about this community's collective backslide. In Hennessy's words, "They've gone back to being normal people."